For our first episode of Only Human, our host, Mary Harris, shares her own story of when her health changed her life.
A couple of years ago, my husband and I had just decided to try for a second kid when something really unexpected happened.
Something felt off in my left breast. “Is that a lump?” my husband asked.
“No way,” I said quickly. I’d just gotten a breast exam at my OB’s office, and I was 35. It seemed impossible that what we’d felt was anything to worry about.
A mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy later, we learned how wrong we were. I had breast cancer.
Then, a few weeks later, as I was getting ready for a lumpectomy, we learned something else. We’d managed to get pregnant.
It was what we wanted. But the timing? Terrible.
As I went through surgery and got ready for chemo, I taped the conversations I was having — with my husband, Mark, and my five-year-old son, Leo, and with doctors I consulted.
A note about this story: getting a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy is rare, but doctors think there will be more patients like me. Women are having babies later, and cancer is getting diagnosed earlier. More and more, these trendlines intersect.
My hope is that by hearing my story, other women who find themselves in this situation will realize that something that seems impossible might not be.
Do you have a "health confession" to share with us? Leave a comment below, email us at email@example.com, or leave us a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC, and we might use your story on the show.
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Mary: So who goes first, the youngest player? Okay, you have to roll the dice.
Mary: How many do you have?
This is a thing my family can almost never get it together to do.
Mary: Leo got four?
Mark: Leo, go one two three… One two three...
But a few weeks ago, my son, Leo, hauled out a board game and demanded to play.
Leo: I think it’s White with … a candlestick…
You’ve probably guessed - the game was Clue. Leo insisted that I be Miss Scarlet. We cleared the dishes from the dining room table so we could huddle around the board. And it was nice. To have time where we weren’t supposed to be somewhere else, doing something else. But getting here? To this normal little moment? It wasn’t easy. Not so long ago, we’d all gotten together around this same dining table for a really different reason.
I’m Mary Harris, and this is Only Human. It’s a show about our best moments and worst moments. About the amazing ways our bodies work, but also about the times they totally fail us. I’m sure you have a story like this. And today I’m going to tell you mine. But just a warning: when you deal with life and death, sometimes you … swear. So, you’ve been warned.
Ok, back to my dining room.
This was a year and a half ago. Leo was five.
Mary: So what are we about to do?
Leo: Shave her head.
Mary: Whose head?
Leo: Mommy’s head!
We were shaving my head because chemotherapy was making my hair fall out. A few months before, I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Mary: What do you think it’s going to look like after?
Leo: I don’t know.
Mary: How do you feel about it?
Leo: Kind of scared, but – it just has to happen.
I’d worn my hair long for 20 years, and I’ll admit -- I was pretty vain about it. But I’d stopped washing it. I hated the feeling of it come out in the shower. So I knew it was time to do something.
Mary: Ok, so are we cutting my ponytail off first?
My husband, Mark, set up a stool in our downstairs bathroom. We were trying to keep things light, so we let Leo hold the clippers for a little bit.
(Clippers click on, then Mary) Whoa! Do you have a license to drive that thing, kid?
Then Mark took over.
(Clippers click on again) Mary: Why is this so much more emotional than anything else?
Mark: Because when you walk down the street you’re going to look like a cancer patient now.
Marks kind of hard to hear right there. But he said: when you walk down the street, now, you’re going to look like a cancer patient. And he was right, I did. I felt really vulnerable. Up until that point, the only people who knew I was sick were the people I told. But shaving my head outed me. To my neighbors. To other parents at Leo’s school. I couldn’t power through and pretend everything was fine.
And there was something else I was dealing with, on top of the cancer. Right after I was diagnosed -- the day before I was supposed to have surgery to get rid of the lump -- we got a call from the cancer center. It was my surgeon’s nurse. And she said, “Is there any chance that you’re pregnant?” I froze. Because right before I found out about the cancer, Mark and I had decided to try for a second kid.
So when I heard her question, I thought: “Shit! I am pregnant.” We spent the rest of that day in last-minute doctor’s appointments. I got an ultrasound, even though I was only five or six weeks along. The OB took us back to her office and asked really gently if we’d consider an abortion. And I looked at Mark and Mark looked at me, and we both said, “no.” I decided to go ahead with surgery to remove the lump.
Mary: Can you just talk a little bit, like tell me what you had for breakfast, so that I can get a level on you?
After surgery, my doctors were recommending chemotherapy. They said I could do it safely once I was a few months along -- but it didn’t FEEL safe. So I called a lot of experts.
Litton: I can’t give you personally medical advice, but I can give some sort of general answer.
...including this one, Jennifer Litton. She studies women who have chemo while they’re pregnant. And there was basically just one question I needed her to answer.
Mary: And the kids? I mean there’s, there’s no difference in terms of…?
Litton: So, um, the kids of our patients are doing quite well. There’s three birth defects…
She told me that overall the babies do okay. She’d tracked more than 80 cases, and only three had been born with birth defects. No one seems to know why these drugs, which are targeting cells that are dividing rapidly, don’t have a terrible effect on a fetus. But Dr. Litton was pretty confident.
Litton: I’ll tell you, a lot of my patients say their babies are their smartest babies and --
I’m laughing, as if it’s making me feel better to have this conversation. But I remember thinking how absurd this line was. That the babies who went through chemo were somehow smarter.
Mary: Thanks so much, Dr. Litton.
Litton: No problem, bye bye.
Mary: Take care.
A few weeks later, Mark and I sat down to talk about what we were going through. It didn’t matter how reassuring the doctors were -- the closer we got to chemo, the more nervous we were.
Mary: I just feel so guilty because I feel like I got myself into this pickle. And I kind of dragged another person with me.
Mark: Which I don’t understand.
Mary: I know, you don’t get it at all. But I feel so bad...
Mark: You’re like -- you managed to get yourself... You’re like, “I see the pregnancy window closing and I’m sliding -- I’m like Indiana Jones! I’m underneath that closing door. I don’t care if there’s giant boulders coming after me. I’m slippin through. Gonna take this metaphor as far as I can.
This is so Mark. He knows that making me laugh is the best way to comfort me. I was doing my best to fight off a lot of fear.
Mary: And there’s no reason to think that she’ll have a long-term negative outcome. There’s no reason to think that. But, yeah, I wonder when I’m going to stop questioning how smart or healthy she is. Because I think I would tell her when she’s old enough -- like you need to look into your reproductive health really early. Because I don’t know how many eggs I zapped away.
Mark: Yeah, but I think you need to be careful about that. I think if we --
Mary: If we worry too much we create this worried little kid.
Mary: Who’s hindered in that way. So we have to treat the kid as normally as possible while being incredibly concerned about the science experiment of her fetushood.
The room where I got chemo was set apart from the rest of the cancer center. It's a place you only go if you're really sick. I looked around at the patients being rolled in on stretchers, the ones who seemed totally worn down, and all I could think was: is that gonna be me? I stuck out my arm and tried to focus on Netflix instead. And I waited for the baby to kick.
Leo: When I’m going to be a hundred, how old is she going to be?
Mary: Like 95 or 94.
Back at home, Leo was far more interested in his baby sister than my cancer.
Mary: What do you think is going to change?
Leo: Oh my goodness, I feel like I’m going to have to change her diapers and blah, blah, blah. And, you know what, I’m going to be like, “Mommy, please do this for me. I’m little, she’s little. And then you’re going to be like, “You are a big boy.”
Mary: Do you actually believe I’m pregnant? Do you actually believe you’re going to have a baby sister?
Leo: I kind of believe you… I believe you a little, I kind of do not believe you.
Mary: Have you noticed that I’m any different after all the treatment, Leo? I act different, or…
Leo paused for a long time here. He just didn’t want to talk about it.
Leo: I’ll always love you, but… I’m enjoying a comic book right now.
Mary: (loud laugh)
Mary: Okay, let me sing you the goodnight song, okay? I’ll turn the light on in the hall so you can read in bed.
Mary: Please lie down so I can tuck you in. (Mary, singing--) Goodnight, so long, farewell, my friend. Goodnight, so long, farewell. We’ll see you soon again my friend. So goodnight, so long, farewell. So how bout a hug for your mom or dad. They’re the ones who take care of you...
This is Only Human. We’ll be back in a minute.
Only Human is a place where we’ll have honest conversations, and not just about me. Every episode, we’ll talk about how health shapes all of us, our relationships, our decisions. And we want to hear from you. Have you ever lied to your doctor? Maybe you gamble a bit with your health? Or you have a deep, dark worry about your body? This week, we’re collecting your confessions. We went out and asked a few people for theirs. This is Ellen.
Ellen: My health confession is probably brushing my teeth for excessive amounts of time.
So what does she mean by excessive?
Ellen: Like, I can be walking around my apartment, watching TV, checking my mail, all while brushing my teeth. And this can go on for about two hours, maybe? If I’m alone at home in the morning.
They don’t have to be heavy. Maybe you’re 35, and you still use gummy vitamins. I still do that. Tell us. Tweet us your confessions with the hashtag only human. Or leave us a message at 803-820-WNYC.
Hey, it’s Mary Harris again. And I’ve been telling you about what happened a couple years ago, when I found out that I had breast cancer. And then I found out I was pregnant. I did all the things you’re supposed to do when you’re pregnant. I took folic acid and I avoided alcohol. And then -- I had chemo. Let’s pick it up there.
Mary: So it’s May, and I’ve gone through like all of my chemo, which is weird.
After three months of treatment, my ultrasounds still looked good. It seemed like I should be celebrating. But I was 8 months pregnant and totally bald.
Mary: We just feel like “Okay, we’ve taken the first step and now I just have to give birth to a child and raise it and get radiation and take tamoxifen and, like, go back to work. (laughs) It feels like it’s the first step of many, basically. And all my doctors are already calling me to say like, “I want to see you a month after the birth, I want to see you six weeks after the birth.” So I feel like I’m still on a little bit of a treadmill. It doesn’t feel like it’s… It doesn’t feel like anything’s over.
A few weeks after I recorded this, I was on my way to the hospital.
Leo: So I’m in the car, and my mom says her water broke, so I’m gonna have a sleepover. So… I’m kind of scared for my mom. I’m gonna be kind of scared for my mom.
After just four hours of labor, she was born. A beautiful girl with a squished up face and a head full of black hair. More hair than me, actually. We named her Stella. But we worried. Why couldn’t she breast feed? Were her birthmarks just luck of the draw, or did they have something to do with the chemo?
Now Stella is 16 months old. That’s her and Leo, playing in the bath. At her last check-up, the pediatrician said she seemed perfect. Mark and I are still figuring out what happened. We don’t like to talk too seriously about the cancer. We caught it early, and the treatment worked. If I had to guess, I’d say we both feel superstitious. Like if we say the word “cancer” out loud? We might summon it back. I convinced Mark to talk about it one more time. It was late, the kids were in bed. Mark poured us each a whiskey.
Mary: Were you ever scared? Now that it’s over, you can tell me.
Mark: (laughs) I don’t think I was ever scared that anything horrible was gonna happen to you last year. I was certainly scared about the pregnancy, that the pregnancy might not work out. Cause that would have been devastating. I think there were moments when I would sort of let myself fall down rabbit hole of, like, I don’t think anything horrible is gonna happen this year, but the odds of something horrible happening, like, 5 or 10 years from now just went way up. I suppose that that is still a concern.
Mary: It’s so funny you say that, cause I feel like if it came back, I’d be scared.
Mark: Yeah, no totally. If it comes back then fuck it. Like then, that’s terrifying… But it hasn’t come back yet. (laughs) We can race though – we can see whether, like, my prostate cancer arrives before your breast cancer comes back. That could be the -- Hopefully we have a couple decades before either of those things happen.
Mary: No seriously, though, what do you think, like, the odds are that it’ll come back? Just for me, this time.
Mark: Like lifetime odds? Or like --
Mark: I don’t know, my hope is that like none of this stuff happens again until, like, we’re both so old that just, like, things are falling apart and the specific ways in which they fall apart is less relevant. But I don’t know.
Mary: Yeah, I’m scared just cause I feel like if it comes back then I have to get a mastectomy – I have to go, like, full bore. I have to go full boob. What?
Mark: You’re gonna wanna cut that (laughs)
People ask me all the time: am I cancer free? And the truth is -- who knows? Because I’ll never really be free of the cancer -- even if every cancer cell has been obliterated. Every day, I look at Stella and I wonder if she’s okay. Every day, I take the pills my oncologist prescribes and hope they’ll keep the cancer from coming back.
Mary: I feel like I should have changed more. Like I feel like I should be exercising more.
Mark: That’s probably true. (laughs) We should both be exercising much more.
Mary: America, this is my husband. This is what I put up with every day of my life.
Mark: (laughs) You know what, America doesn’t have a microphone in its face at like 10:45 at night on a Sunday when America’s trying to get some rest.
Thanks for listening to the very first episode of Only Human. If you like what you heard, share it. On Facebook, or tweet it out. You’ll find US on Facebook and Twitter, too. We’re @onlyhuman. And while you’re there, don’t forget to share your health confession with the hashtag only human.
Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios. This episode was produced and edited by Molly Messick, with production help from Amanda Aronczyk and Paige Cowett. Our team includes Elaine Chen, Fred Mogul, and Kathryn Tam. Our technical director is Michael Raphael. Our executive producer is Leital Molad.
Special thanks to Jad Abumrad, Emily Botein, Paul Schneider, Joseph Frankel, Emrys Eller, Winn Periyasamy, Lena Walker and Sam Retzer. Also thanks to Jen Hsu and Amy Pearl. Jim Schachter is the patron saint of this podcast and WNYC’s entire news division.
Next week on Only Human:
Mary: So when did you know or when did your family or friends know that this wasn't just you. This was something bigger?
Jaime Lowe: Well my apartment burned down.
What it’s like when the medication that’s keeping you sane is also making you sick.
I’m Mary Harris. Talk to you soon.